Whether or not they’re serious about requiring the under-seventeen crowd to bring along a parent, Village Square Theatre is following the MPAA rating system, prominently displaying the “rated R” logo and information on print publicity for their production of Avenue Q, a spoof of Sesame Street, complete with humans interacting with moon-faced puppets. That’s probably a good idea, because this is definitely not a show for children or the easily offended. In his program notes, Director Jeff Sigley notes that as a fringe production (not a part of the regular season) Avenue Q steps outside Village Square’s usual commitment to family-friendly entertainment. While I respect the fact that squeaky-clean shows provide an opportunity to introduce young people to the theatre, (and can be quite enjoyable) it’s nice to see a local group going outside its established audience base/comfort zone and presenting something different. F-bombs are dropped, there’s a song dedicated to the joys of internet porn, and such issues as racism, sexual identity, and poverty are savagely lampooned. There are more than a few “I can’t believe they went there” moments in the show, each more outrageous than the one before, which quickly establishes a sort of permission to laugh at sentiments that would otherwise be met with shock and disapproval. Much in the style of the late George Carlin, Avenue Q realizes that the best way not to offend anyone is to, well, offend everybody. Having seen the show before, I was curious as to how it would play in what is a traditionally conservative house. If the audience at Sunday’s matinee is any indication of the overall response, this show has people guffawing like hell, almost to the point of rolling in the aisles. There are no sacred cows in the script, yet the writing never descends to sophomoric vulgarity in hopes of getting a cheap laugh. Yes, it’s unabashedly naughty and inappropriate, but the script is smart, clever, and somehow manages to establish its small urban neighborhood as a bizarre but welcoming place.
It’s a typical day on Avenue Q, with the regulars and a couple of newcomers to the neighborhood all doing their best to navigate the world of disillusioned Gen-Xers facing more humble lifestyles than they expected. In his introductory song, Princeton, ( well-voiced and puppeteered by Brooks Torbett) a recent college graduate, wistfully sings “What Do You Do With A B.A. In English?” The answer is that you move to the ghetto of Avenue Q, get a cheap apartment, and ponder the grim realities of adult life disappointment through a poignant but relatably funny musical introspective. In getting to know his new neighbors, Princeton finds budding romance with Kate Monster, (winningly created by Julia Hudson) a sweet, somewhat naïve young woman, and strikes up a conversation with former child star, Gary Coleman.
As one of the few flesh-and-blood human residents of Avenue Q, Coleman has burned through his Diff’rent Strokes money, hit rock bottom, and is now working as a maintenance man. Ara-Viktoria McKinney-Goins (who also serves as the show’s Musical Director) brings a gently irreverent tone to Coleman, which, while saucy and tinged with gallows humour, is never demeaning or cruel with regards to the late Coleman’s legacy. Providing some of the funniest “I’m going straight to hell for laughing at this” moments is Melissa Hanna’s Christmas Eve, an Asian-American woman whose broad caricature is only slightly less inappropriate than Mickey Rooney’s infamous turn as Mr. Yunioshi in the 1960s film, Breakfast At Tiffany’s. However, there’s such a complete detachment from real-life sensitivities, it somehow seems acceptable to laugh. As with the rest of the oft-politically incorrect denizens of Avenue Q, there’s no malice behind or “laughing at” Christmas Eve’s broken English and double-entendres. She’s quirky and plays to the stereotype, but she is a fully accepted and beloved-if-cranky member of the community. This is a fairly difficult tightrope to walk, and Hanna succeeds.
In a few of the more outrageous moments, we encounter Tyler Elling and Resi Talbot as the “Bad Idea Bears,” a somewhat Family Guy-esque variation on the virtuous “Care Bears” toys which promote good behaviour and healthy decision-making. In a side-splitting montage, these sweet-faced teddy bears and their puppetmasters convince Princeton and Kate Monster to get wildly drunk on a work night, in addition to other shenanigans, all sung in the style of a “be good, kids” cartoon. Meredith Olenick gets roof-raising laughter in her turn as “bad girl puppet” Lucy The Slut. Lucy lives up to her name, complete with Dolly Parton coif, one-night stands, and foam rubber-and-felt décolletage. Keep a sharp ear out, as her one-liners are fast and sometimes unexpected, and you won’t want to miss a single tarty wisecrack. Perhaps the most memorable character, though, is Trekkie Monster, an obviously *ahem* inspired-by-Cookie-Monster aficionado of online sex videos. William Arvay gives Trekkie a soul beneath his grumpy exterior, but never holds back on allowing Trekkie to be who he is. Arvay’s “The Internet Is For Porn” literally stopped the show, and this old pro played every scene to its fullest, without ever drawing attention away from the rest of the cast. Avenue Q is an ensemble piece, and that concept/energy is obviously embraced by the team. The rest of the cast consists of Beck Chandler, (Brian) Raymond Elling, (Nicky) and James Galluzzo (Rod/Singing Box). Each brings a professional, well-rehearsed, and wickedly rib-tickling performance to a uniformly solid production. Stage Manager Lindsay Brown does an excellent job of riding herd on her human and puppet actors, and keeps the show’s pace moving briskly and seamlessly, with set changes, sound cues, and transitions going smoothly and efficiently.
…which leads me to what ultimately makes Avenue Q a success. This cast and crew obviously like each other, and have created that feeling an audience member can sense when a cast just “clicks.” The puppets and their handlers have spent a great deal of social time together, reinforcing these odd little relationships with which they’re tasked to bringing to life. A quick glance at Facebook shows multiple group karaoke outings, an evening on the town with the puppets in tow, and even some shots of Hudson and Kate Monster enjoying karaoke in the ship’s lounge on Hudson’s recent vacation cruise. Also worthy of note is the mid-rehearsal-period illness of director, Sigley. Having been hospitalized with pancreatitis for almost two weeks of the rehearsal period, he heaps tremendous praise on his cast and production team for following the oft-observed advice to “Keep Calm And Carry On.” McKinney-Goins made sure the cast perfected their vocals during their leader’s absence, and the group collectively did table work and tentative blocking, providing a semi-finished piece for Sigley to refine and complete upon his return. As one who extols the importance of teamwork and cast bonding when directing, I always appreciate seeing it having been emphasized in a show I’m reviewing.
Is Avenue Q flawless? No, but the good by far outweighs the bad. Dan Woodard’s set is just about perfect in design, but occasionally suffers from lighting issues which sometimes give the stage an overly bright, “full wash” texture, occasionally to the point of obscuring projected images on the upstage scrim. To their credit, Village Square usually features live musicians for musical theatre productions, but as a non-season show, Avenue Q relies on recorded music tracks. This is normally a somewhat significant disappointment to me, but in this oddball world of a children’s-show dystopia, it actually works. The music sounds like the incidental tunes we of a certain age recall from various PBS kids’ shows of the 70s and 80s, and in this specific case, that’s just what is needed. Although they were brief, I wish the show had not stopped for scene changes. The set is somewhat minimal,each vignette flows easily into the next, and spending 30 or so seconds in the dark did take me out of the moment a few times. Bringing the end of one scene or song downstage while the next one is being set upstage would have been perfectly true to the reality established by Avenue Q, and would have maintained a greater sense of continuity and uninterrupted flow.
While worthy of note, these few drawbacks do not significantly detract from the joyfully guilty pleasure that is Avenue Q. If double-entendres, single-entendres, occasionally raunchy humour, and broadly-drawn zany characters are your thing, you’ll enjoy Avenue Q. If you appreciate all of the above, wrapped in an overall message of acceptance along the lines of “don’t feel so bad, we’re all f**ked up in one way or another,” you will absolutely love it. Village Square is only a 20 minute drive from downtown, so make the trip out to Lexington this weekend and visit the fine folks and merry monsters of Avenue Q.
Avenue Q concludes its run this weekend, with performances at 7.30pm Friday and Saturday, and a 3pm matinee on Sunday. Tickets can be reserved at VillageSquare.com, or by ringing the Box Office on 803.359.1436.
Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.